Listen to this article here
The Black Wall Street Times

Sign-Up for a free subscription to The Black Wall Street Timesdaily newsletter, Black Editors’ Edition (BEE) – our curated news selections & opinions by us for you.

More than a week after journalists in Southeastern Oklahoma released recordings that depicted top McCurtain County officials plotting about killing them and lynching Black people, Chris Willingham of the McCurtain Gazette-News continues to worry about the safety of his family.

“I had a feeling this was going to be explosive just because of how abhorrent the comments are on the audio. But I never dreamed it would be as big as it has become,” journalist Chris Willingham told The Black Wall Street Times on Tuesday.

“We have been and are worried about our safety. Almost at every turn throughout this they never claimed anything I’ve written was false. They’ve never asked for a retraction, but they have continually retaliated against me and my family,” Willingham said.

McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, Deputy Alicia Manning, and former District 2 County Commissioner Mark Jennings.

McCurtain County journalist fears for safety after violent, racist recording leak

Chris’ father Bruce, publisher of the newspaper, hid a recording device in the room following a March 6 county board meeting. It revealed Clardy, Manning, Hendrix and now-former County Commissioner Mark Jennings discussing wanting to kill journalist Chris Willingham and throw his body in a hole.

“I know where two big, deep holes are here if you ever need them,” Jennings said.  The Sheriff chimed in, saying he has an excavator they could use for the job.

“Well these are already pre-dug,” Jennings allegedly responded. The county officials also complained about no longer being allowed to lynch Black people.

“Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with damned rope,” Jennings said. “But you can’t do that anymore. They’ve got more rights than we’ve got.”

In this photo provided by the Southwest Ledger, McCurtain County residents call for the resignation of several McCurtain County officials after tapes with the officials’ racist comments surfaced over the weekend, in Idabel, Okla., Monday, April 17, 2023. (Christopher Bryan/Southwest Ledger via AP)

A history of racism in McCurtain County

The town of Idabel in McCurtain County experienced a race riot in 1980 after white residents shot to death a 15-year-old Black boy outside a whites-only club. Civil rights officials began investigating the town after roughly 150 patrol officers clashed with nearly 200 Black people.

The town of Idabel in McCurtain County was the scene of a race riot in 1980 after 15-year-old Henry Lee Johnson, a Black boy, was shot to death outside a Whites-only club. (McCurtain County Historical Society)

Journalist Willingham said the blatantly racist attitude found on the recording doesn’t reflect his community today.

“This is our home and our community here, and we love it. That’s not the mindset.”

So far, only Mark Jennings has resigned following public pressure. Sheriff Kevin Clardy, Captain Alicia Manning, and Jail Administrator Larry Hendrix have so far refused to resign, with the sheriff accusing the journalist of breaking the law by secretly recording them.

Oklahoma Republican Governor Kevin Stitt has called for the officials to voluntarily resign as the state attorney general, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations and the FBI investigate the officials. The state NAACP has also called for a federal investigation.

“This guy needs to do the right thing and he needs to step down, because he’s only hurting himself, and he’s only hurting Oklahoma, and I don’t think he can be effective at this point,” Stitt said on Friday during a news conference. His office is looking into options for impeachment.

Timeline of events

Since the summer of 2020, Willingham has been investigating allegations of corruption and mishandling of evidence at the Sheriff’s Office, the jail trust and other county offices.

“They fired several employees just for talking to me. There were reports of gang rapes [in the county] that weren’t investigated at all. Reports of inmate abuse at the jail,” Chris Willingham told The Black Wall Street Times. “There’s allegations of drug use by the sheriff. During this time we’ve also had the largest jail break in county history.”

Chris and his father filed a federal lawsuit against county officials just hours before Bruce Willingham placed a recording device in the room on March 6. The violent, racist revelations that followed has placed a national spotlight on a quiet community.

  • March 6: Chris and Bruce Willingham of the McCurtain Gazette-News record county officials describing intent to kill them and desire to lynch Black people.
  • April 16: Statewide newspaper, the Oklahoman, publishes report of racist recording.
  • April 16: Oklahoma Governor Stitt calls for voluntary resignations.
  • April 17; McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy refuses to resign, accusing journalists of illegally recording them.
  • April 18: Mayor Craig Young, a Black man in the city of Idabel, the seat of McCurtain County, calls Sheriff Clardy’s response “a joke.” Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association suspends McCurtain County officials. A former McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office employee details a history of racist “good ole boy” behavior and threats against peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in an interview with The Black Wall Street Times.
  • April 19: Now-former McCurtain County Commissioner Mark Jennings resigns following public pressure from State Senator George Burns (R-Pollard) and others.
  • April 21: Gov. Stitt asks AG Drummond to investigate officials as he considers impeachment proceedings. AG Drummond acknowledges his office has already been looking into the matter.

“This is not who we are”

As state officials ramp up pressure on Sheriff Clardy and others to resign, residents of McCurtain County worry that the national spotlight doesn’t accurately reflect their community. Following the release of the recording, a diverse crowd of Idabel residents came out to protest their own county officials.

“It’s not right. They took an oath to serve and protect and they are not doing it,” Idabel resident Mattie Duncan told The Oklahoman.

For his part, Willingham told The Black Wall Street Times he’s grateful to Gov. Stitt for “shining a bigger spotlight” on the county officials’ conduct.

“I think the leadership should reflect the values of this community, and it does not currently. We are really a unified community, and this is not who we are at all,” Willingham said.

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply